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World Literature in Motion: Institution, Recognition, Location, edited by Flair Donglai Shi and Gareth Guangming Tan

Reviewed by Ann Ang, University of Oxford

World Literature in Motion: Institution, Recognition, Location, edited by Flair Donglai Shi and Gareth Guangming Tan. Stuttgart: ibidem-Verlag, 2020. £37.81. ISBN: 9783838211633.


The field of world literature has been shaped in no small part by the debates that define world literature itself as a matter of contestation, be it in terms of the object of study, its associated methodologies, or its relation to other established critical fields such as postcolonial studies or comparative literature. In World Literature in Motion, editors Flair Donglai Shi and Gareth Guangming Tan intervene in such conversations by foregrounding an approach that they term ‘critical world literature studies’, after Stefan Helgesson and Pieter Vermeulen’s earlier coining of the term. For Shi and Tan, the meta-language of world literature theorising obscures the ‘actualities’ that should rightfully inform the priorities of such scholarship. Accordingly, the fifteen essays that make up this edited volume employ close attention to archival methods of research, analyses of prize culture, and the materialities of what Gérard Genette defines as paratexts, to achieve a ‘more ideologically neutral, materially grounded, and self-reflective way to study world literature (as well as the academic field of World Literature)’ (24). The term ‘motion’ in the volume’s title has a double-meaning, alluding not only to the field’s longstanding concern with contexts of circulation, but also to the collection’s proposal for a grounded sociology relying on ‘solid primary data from specific locations’ that ‘makes clear the structural mechanisms and limitations of world literature in whichever definition mentioned so far’ (23).

            However, as is the case with any attempt to participate in the debates surrounding world literature, Shi and Tan recognise the need to adopt a critical stance. They have chosen to adopt the anti-hegemonic ethics of postcolonial studies while generously situating the work in this volume to accommodate relationalities to fields abutting world literature. The chapters are organised in four sections: ‘Postcolonial Institutions’, ‘Recognition through Prizes’, ‘Minor Locations’, and ‘Translations beyond the Anglophone’. Each of these, to adopt Emily Apter’s much quoted term in Against World Literature (2013), employs a ‘deflationary’ stance towards overarching categories, while re-constructing these productively in light of new research, often from geographies and literary traditions on the periphery of the Western academy. Many of the chapters tap on previously unstudied primary material from the Booker Prize Archive at Oxford Brookes University, and delve into the paratexts of lesser-known literary institutions unfamiliar to most on the Anglo-American circuit, such as China’s foremost journal in translation and world literature, Yiwen/Shijie wenxue.

            While recognising the importance of fruitful intersections with research on postcolonial studies, the book’s first section departs resolutely from a cultural studies approach by foregrounding hierarchical power structures in postcolonial institutions that have a bearing on publishing and readership. The opening essay can be seen as representative of such an approach – Rivkah Brown’s extensive study of the Zimbabwe International Book Fair and its championing of book development in Africa reveals how residual colonialist attitudes towards literature as acculturation persist alongside perceptions of reading as a utilitarian activity. Likewise, the next section – ‘Recognition through Prizes’ – departs from the academy’s tendency to focus on the success of major prizes in order to examine how authors continue to exert their influence as individual agents in the economy of cultural production. This section includes essays examining how V. S. Naipaul and Arundhati Roy tactically exert an influence on their readerships beyond how the Booker has presented their authorial personas. The focus on bringing minor perspectives into view is again apparent in ‘Minor Locations’, with chapters on the literary prizes of Mauritius and the evolution of Cypriot literature(s), both of which examine the scope for the consecration of new literary and interlingual registers beyond the formerly colonial languages that dominate the publishing industry. Finally, the closing section on translation(s) turns our attention to an alternative world of literary relations beyond the Anglophone, with new work exploring lesser-known intersections of world literature with the literatures of East Asia, particularly in relation to translations into and out of Chinese and Korean.

            An important strength of the collection is the responsiveness of these essays to major theoretical frameworks in world literature scholarship, and many are illuminating for both their application of existing methodologies and how they gesture towards the limitations of these. For instance, Rashi Rohatgi’s illuminating comparative study of two literary prizes in Mauritius – the Le Prince Maurice prize and the Ledikasyon pu Travayer Prize – departs from how prior scholarship tends to measure the success of writing from a minor location by its presence on the world stage. While a prize like the Le Prince Maurice would be typically dismissed as overly touristic for its association with a beach resort, it generates its own scandal as an exotic location associated with glitz and glamour, which, while failing to accrue sufficient cultural capital in comparison to the Booker, nonetheless sets the stage for other curatorial efforts. Similarly, the Ledikasyon pu Travayer Prize is awarded to a new work in Kreole Morisyen, a French-based creole, which, while seemingly insular for its strict choice of language medium, occurs in support of activist efforts to adopt Kreole Morisyen as the main language of education. Rohatgi’s chapter expands on previous scholarship by Graham Huggan and James English to show that literary prizes in a minor location, like Mauritius, may respond to a different set of priorities beyond literary consecration and canonisation – priorities which become visible and productive when we suspend our judgement in relation to the implication of these in the inequalities of the global book trade. Likewise, in his account of the brief lifespan of the Man Asian Booker Prize, editor Flair Donglai Shi attends to how its organising committee failed to marshal the tactics of the Man Booker in accumulating sufficient capital. It fell short of achieving the ‘interventionist ambition’ of bringing literary works from Asia as a region with burgeoning economic and political presence into the same Western orbit as the Booker. Shi’s chapter highlights how there is an over-reliance on literary prizes in the creation of literary value, and by extension, an over-scrutiny of its effects within the academy.

            World Literature in Motion is also a collection that rewards reading across its four sections for unexpected points of dialogue. In a collected volume which is overwhelmingly concerned with the literary institution as the focus of cultural capital in the field of cultural production, the figure of the author as an individual agent is also examined in the nexus of institutional forces. Carmen Thong’s chapter takes as its starting point the 1971 Booker committee’s determined identification of V.S. Naipaul’s In a Free State as a novel, in order for it to meet the prize criteria. This is balanced against Naipaul’s employment of innovative and deviant literary forms at this stage of his career. While such experimental forms are characteristic of Caribbean writers in the 1960s, Thong notes Naipaul’s active dissociation from the West Indian habitus as he continued to produce works like The Enigma of Arrival (1987) and A Way in the World (1994), which defy critics’ efforts to classify them and can be seen as part of Naipaul’s endeavour to exert his authorial identity. Likewise, Lubabah Chowdhury discusses the rhetoric of authenticity surrounding Arundhati Roy’s authorial persona to make a case for how she tapped into the celebrity discourse surrounding her to draw attention to her activist work, effectively reorienting the reader towards different aspects of her oeuvre. Chowdhury’s chapter is refreshing for its attention to Roy’s non-fiction, which is less-studied, but could have considered existing scholarship on her role in a globalised discourse of dissent.

            Due recognition must be given to the editors for bringing together such a wide range of new scholarly voices within an overarching frame, and for a deftness of editorial curation that allows all chapters to speak from their respective material contexts. However, given the relative unfamiliarity that many general readers may have with these, a number of the chapters have provided the required sociohistorical background, making for educational but somewhat lengthy reading. With the volume’s conscientious methodology in mind, some chapters err on the side of being overly descriptive, and could have used a sharper engagement with the theoretical categories laid out in the introduction. Still, World Literature in Motion provides excellent accounts of archival research, which are truly novel for their determined approach to geopolitical situatedness and sociocultural specificity, and their rigorous assessment of prior concepts and categories. After all, a neutral position remains positional for its neutrality, and this recent volume is a timely reminder that researchers can expect to be pleasantly surprised by literary phenomena in the field at large.